Etel Adnan on Women & Freedom
A few years ago, I discovered the artwork and writing of Etel Adnan, a woman not easily defined. She was raised in Beirut, in a mixed Muslim-Christian, Syrian-Greek household, at a time when Arab identity in French-administered Lebanon was something of a shame. Forced to speak French as a school girl, she began her early explorations of feeling exiled while at home, of feeling like a foreigner in her own land. These themes continue for her as she moves from Beirut to Paris and the United States, all the while exploring what it means to be a woman in the world, and searching for her freedom.
I've been reading her book Of Cities and Women, a collection of letters she wrote to a friend containing her thoughtful reflections on femininity in the context of place, including Aix-en-Provence, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beirut, Murcia, Rome, and Skopelos. In these diverse geographies, she searches for the "essence of what is feminine," and observes how these cities serve to constrain or liberate the women who inhabit them. I was struck by this passage about an experience she had in Barcelona.
I heard a gyspy song. A real flamenco...Two or three women, rather old and poorly dressed, who could be called "lower-middle-class" , started dancing. That gave me one of the answers I'd been looking for. In an Arab city, in Beirut for example, young people I know, or others, would have cracked insulting jokes. They would have said cruel things. "You're too fat to dance," they would have said to one; "you're too old," they would have said to another. Men from our country do not accept women who express themselves with their body in public, I said to myself. Here, on this avenue, the women didn't have to be considered "beautiful" to dance in the street. They were respected without anybody making a big fuss about it, they were free.
Her musings pertain to Arab cities, but I've been thinking, far outside the Arab world, how do our unwritten social rules constrain women? Does our ageism or fixation on youth, thinness, or beauty hold women back from fully expressing themselves in their cities and streets? In their everyday lives? Have I been guilty of judging a woman for proudly taking up space in the public realm irrespective of how she looks or how old she is?
Ms. Adnan's writings left me aware of the notion that celebrating femininity (in fact celebrating human diversity period) starts and ends with us. Even if we're not comfortable to fully put ourselves out there, we have the power to withhold judgement when another woman does, to foster safe spaces, to come to the defense of a woman expressing herself in whatever way she wants. Whether in terms of what we wear or what we do or who we are, if we're to ultimately find our own freedom, we must generously extend it to others.